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article imageAnti-EU minister's resignation deals major blow to UK's Cameron

By Robin Millard (AFP)     Mar 19, 2016 in Politics

Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to reshuffle his government Saturday after a top eurosceptic's surprise resignation over benefit cuts sent shock waves through his campaign to keep Britain in the EU.

Iain Duncan Smith, a former leader of Cameron's Conservatives and key figure on its right wing, quit as Work and Pensions Secretary Friday with a scathing letter lambasting cuts to benefits for disabled people announced in this week's budget.

Duncan Smith's decision after nearly six years in the job has delivered perhaps the biggest blow to Cameron since his re-election last year, with just three months to go until the referendum on EU membership on June 23.

In his resignation letter, Duncan Smith questioned whether Cameron was honouring his slogan that Britons were "all in this together", despite deep austerity cuts including £1.3 billion (1.2 billion euros, $1.4 billion) in annual cuts to disability welfare.

"I hope as the government goes forward you can look again at the balance of the cuts you have insisted upon and wonder if enough has been done to ensure 'we are all in this together'," Duncan Smith wrote.

In response, Cameron said he was "puzzled" by Duncan Smith's resignation as he had agreed the cuts a week ago before Downing Street subsequently decided Friday to revise them in the face of opposition.

As Cameron appointed Stephen Crabb, the pro-EU former Welsh Secretary, to replace Duncan Smith Saturday, commentators questioned how much of a part Europe had also played in his resignation.

Matthew d'Ancona in the Guardian noted that, while Duncan Smith had long had tense relations with Cameron and his finance minister George Osborne over welfare, the reasons for his resignation were "much messier".

"Duncan Smith was always unlikely to survive a post-referendum reshuffle, assuming the remainers triumphed on 23 June," d'Ancona wrote.

"Instead, he has taken control of his destiny and left government at a time and in a manner of his own choosing."

- 'Sleepless nights' for Cameron -

Iain Duncan Smith leaves after attending a pre-Budget cabinet meeting at Downing Street in London  o...
Iain Duncan Smith leaves after attending a pre-Budget cabinet meeting at Downing Street in London, on March 16, 2016
Leon Neal, AFP/File

D'Ancona added, one month after London Mayor Boris Johnson sided with the Leave camp against Cameron, those in favour of Brexit again had "the initiative, the energy, the sheer bloody audacity".

"It is this, rather than welfare reform, that should be giving Cameron sleepless nights," he wrote.

"The unity of the party is already under strain," added Paul Goodman, editor of Conservative Home, a commentary site popular with party grassroots, wrote.

"Duncan Smith's walkout makes it less likely that it will hold together after the referendum."

The minister's announcement came hours after the Treasury signalled a humiliating climbdown over the plans to change to the assessment criteria for welfare to the disabled.

A former army officer often referred to by his three initials, "IDS" is one of six senior ministers who last month broke ranks with Cameron to back a British withdrawal from the European Union in the referendum.

Duncan Smith was not speaking to media on Saturday but was due to appear on BBC television's main weekend political interview programme on Sunday.

The main opposition Labour party called for the immediate reversal of what it said were "cruel" cuts to disability personal independence payment (PIP).

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, of the Scottish National Party, added on Twitter: "IDS resignation may be more about EU than his conscience - but he has struck a fatal blow to #PIP cuts and that's a good thing.

"David_Cameron must now reverse the #PIP cuts immediately."

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